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EW's PrizeFighter analyzes the Best Actress race, brought to you by Reese Witherspoon

Thank goodness for Reese ­Witherspoon.

Despite a recent surge in strong roles for women (e.g., Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Jennifer ­Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook), Hollywood really dropped the ball when it came to showcasing interesting roles for actresses in 2014. If it weren’t for Witherspoon’s newfound strength as a producer, two of this year’s likely ­nominees wouldn’t exist—and the Best Actress race would look even more dire than it currently does.

Witherspoon herself is one of the primary contenders, of course, for her portrayal of a novice hiker looking for redemption in the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild (which the actress produced). But she also optioned and developed the box office hit Gone Girl, which should land a nomination for Rosamund Pike, playing the iciest (and scariest) wife in modern ­cinema. Neither of them is the front­runner, however. READ FULL STORY

Let the Oscar race begin! EW's PrizeFighter analyzes the Best Actor race

It’s only natural to begin our four-month Oscar discussion with what’s sure to be the most contentious race of all: the Best Actor category. Though it’s only November, this is already one crowded arena, filled with performances that span continents, explore disease, and wrestle with failure. And unfortunately, the race can’t hold them all. READ FULL STORY

The Oscar race takes shape: Sure things, contenders, and wild cards

It’s September, so why wouldn’t we start predicting an Oscar race that won’t finish for another five months?

To be fair, Venice, Telluride, and the Toronto film festivals have all concluded. Many films have screened. Many films have connected with audiences, and a rough draft of the Oscar race is beginning to come into focus. Sure, no Academy member will even begin popping in those screener DVDs for another couple of months, but it’s still worth discussing what has buzz and what is likely to still be on voters’ minds once the weather finally begins to cool off.

Here’s a very early look at what the race looks like now. READ FULL STORY

Oscars set dates for 2015 award season

Mark your calendars, Oscar-watchers.

After a slightly later presentation this year due to the Winter Olympics, the 2015 Academy Awards telecast has returned to its usual domain on Sunday, Feb. 22 of next year.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made the announcement today, along with a list of other significant dates that form the backbone of backslapping season.

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Oscar analysis: '12 Years a Slave' breaks Academy's trend of playing it safe

Shoulda trusted the coin.

About two weeks ago, sitting in the office of EW assistant managing editor Sean Smith, we were discussing EW’s official Oscar predictions and mulling the reaction I was getting from many voters: Gravity was taking the lead in the tightest Best Picture race in years, and those who favored 12 Years a Slave seemed soft in their support.

For months, ever since the historical drama premiered at the Toronto film festival, it was at the top of my predictions list — a crushing, emotionally resonant film that addressed how we perceive and treat those who appear to be different from ourselves. But it was also an uncompromising film, full of brutality that was often difficult to watch, and we all know the Academy Awards have compromised a lot in the past.

So I switched our pick toward Gravity, which was garnering a groundswell of support in other categories, and seemed to be the popular, more accessible favorite. The graphics people were alerted to make a last-minute adjustment, and I stayed with that through the final round of guessing. It was close enough to give me a stomachache. (Believe it or not, the predictions truly are made based on our best assessment of voters. There’s no advocacy or favoritism. The cold, hard pragmatism of wanting to be right guides those choices.)

The call was made: Gravity it would be, by a hair. But then I flipped a quarter, and Sean called it: Tails, it would be 12 Years a Slave.

Again — shoulda trusted the coin. READ FULL STORY

Prize Fighter Analysis: BAFTA wins for '12 Years a Slave' and 'Gravity' further muddle a tight Oscar race

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Will it be Gravity or 12 Years a Slave? We keep looking for clarity, but this year’s award season is not forthcoming.

The BAFTA awards — think of them as the British Oscars — are considered a major Academy Award indicators, and this year 12 Years a Slave won Best Film. But … Gravity claimed the award for “Outstanding British Film” (since it was mostly produced there.)

So there.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman's film breakthrough, remembered by 'Nebraska' Oscar-nominee June Squibb

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One great pleasure of watching an old movie is spotting famous actors doing bit parts, back before anyone could have known what they’d become.

Philip Seymour Hoffman provided a litany of these, having paid his dues over many years as a working actor — making even small roles seem impressive. That’s how we eventually came to know his name.

After his death yesterday, EW began looking back through some of these early performances — his debut as a wise-ass street kid on a 1991 episode of Law & Order, and his supporting role as the morally ambiguous best friend of Chris O’Donnell’s character in 1992′s Scent of a Woman.

Looking up that particular part, we spotted something surprising in one of his early scenes. In the game of finding a future film star in a background role, this scene from Scent of a Woman turned out to be a double.

Hoffman is not just sharing the screen with O’Donnell, as they try to distract an older teacher from witnessing a prank being set up over the headmaster’s parking space. Hoffman is also acting opposite a current Oscar-nominee: Nebraska‘s June Squibb.

We reached out to her via her son, filmmaker Harry Kakatsakis, to see if she had any memories of Hoffman to share.

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'Her' and 'Captain Phillips' win Writers Guild Awards

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Spike Jonze’s philosophical sci-fi love story Her, and Billy Ray’s harrowing true-life hostage saga Captain Phillips earned best original and adapted screenplays, respectively, from the Writers Guild Awards on Saturday.

In the original category, Her was facing its four rivals for the Oscar: American Hustle, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, and Nebraska, so its victory can be seen as a strong harbinger of where the Academy Award could go on March 2. In anecdotal sampling of Academy members, EW’s Prize Fighter has also determined that Her is far and away the front-runner for this category.

The WGA’s predictive powers are less assured in the adapted category, since guild rules excluded some top Oscar contenders this year.

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'Alone Yet Not Alone': Academy says revoked Original Song composer contacted a third of voters

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Three days after yanking the Original Song nomination from the religious period-drama Alone Yet Not Alone, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has issue a more detailed explanation about why the theme song was disqualified.

At issue was composer Bruce Broughton, a former governor of the group’s music branch, who acknowledged that he privately emailed members of that voting division and asked them to consider his song from the relatively obscure movie.

Meanwhile, Broughton is questioning whether what he did was any different than the past award-season consulting done by the current Academy president, who comes from a background in marketing and public relations.

Since every film is hyped and promoted in some way, the Academy is now explaining why his actions were deemed improper — saying he directly reached out to nearly one-third of the voters in his field, and used his position as a leader to gain an advantage that other contenders didn’t have.

“The Academy takes very seriously anything that undermines the integrity of the Oscars voting process,” Saturday’s statement read. “The Board regretfully concluded that Mr. Broughton’s actions did precisely that.”

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'Alone Yet Not Alone': The other nominees who had their Oscars revoked

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Alone Yet Not Alone has some company.

The obscure religious drama, which had its Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song revoked over allegations of improper campaigning, is one of the few films in history to suffer such a fate.

In one case, the film actually won the Oscar — and the victory was overturned after the fact and awarded to the runner-up. And in another — the earliest in the organization history — no one is sure why the film was rejected from consideration.

UPDATED: While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences disputes that some crediting and nominating issues of the past amount to a revoked nomination, here are some they cite as examples of contenders whose shots at the trophy were brought to a halt:

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